Pez mania

What inspired the founders of Ebay? What's the focus of a thriving community, online and off? Little candy dispensers.


Avid collectors of all sorts of items — from antique cuckoo clocks to Roman coins — have always formed communities of like mind and gathered periodically in person to trade and schmooze. But the Internet has kicked this process into overdrive.

Need evidence? Just ponder the Pezheads. Pez-dispenser devotees have not only built communities online — their obsession has inspired the founding of billion-dollar companies, and even brought couples together.

Mary Thronson and Brian Gochal are two Pez devotees who recently attended a Pez collectors convention in Los Angeles. Initially, they were embarrassed to talk about how their romance began over the “Pezheads” e-mail list and then hit full bloom when they met at another Pez convention in 1996. But the blush on their faces vanished once they asked me if I wanted to check out their tattoos. On Gochal’s leg stretched a four-inch design of a “Mr. Ugly” Pez, its wrinkly green face resting on a lighter-shaped neck; Thronson’s calf featured a brown-faced “Bullwinkle” head with a yellow dispenser.

Thronson, 28, is a substance abuse counselor in South Dakota and has collected Pez dispensers for several years. Gochal, 33, a computer salesman living in Mountain View, Calif., will soon head east to move in with his fiancie. In a town of 2,000 residents and scant demand for computer salespeople, Gochal plans to turn their 800-plus Pez collection (plus untrademarked Pez boxers, Pez watches and more) into a home-based business. “Thanks to the Net and eBay, I think I could bring in at least $2,000 a month,” he said — a sum that goes a lot further in South Dakota than in the Bay Area.

The one-day Pez-a-thon show in Los Angeles, open to the public for $5 a pop, drew some 1,200 people in late March. The crowd ranged in age from kids who could barely see over the tables of Mickey Mouse, Daffy Duck and zillions of other dispensers to hunched-over elderly folks holding their grandchildren’s hands. Dealers came from all over the world, including Austria, the world headquarters of privately held Pez.

You Might Also Like

Many of the dealers, who have known each other for years from the Pezheads list, rented rooms a couple nights before the public trade show to network and try to snatch “wholesale” deals on the hottest items — an 18-piece “Make-a-Face” dispenser, ` la Mr. Potato Head, selling for $3,000, for example, or an extremely rare 1980 set of three French cartoon characters (Asterix, Obelix and Miraculix) for $8,000.

Many visitors came to check out the latest or rarest of these time-honored plastic novelties, whose hinged lids release candies from the dispenser’s neck. But these days, the bulk of Pez trading occurs on the Internet. And by far the hottest hub for trading Pez items is eBay — which, keen on keeping its flock loyal (particularly as e-commerce behemoth enters the online auction battlefield), sponsored the Pez-a-thon.

Pierre Omidyar, the 31-year-old founder and chairman of the San Jose company, paid tribute to a ballroom full of Pezheads during a kickoff reception at the show. He recanted the now-legendary tale of how, back in 1995, his girlfriend (now wife) Pam, a Pez collector, longed for a way to easily find more dispensers. Omidyar had been wanting to create an efficient marketplace on the Web for person-to-person commerce. Thus came the epiphany: an online auction house where people could list Pez, Barbies and eventually thousands of other items.

So what possesses people to pay up to thousands of dollars for plastic candy dispensers that once sold for 29 cents (years ago) to little more than a dollar (today)? Clearly, it’s not the grape, lemon and orange nugget-shaped candies themselves. For baby boomers and beyond, the Mickey Mouse, Goofy and other Pezheads conjure up a simpler, cleaner, more free-spirited time before pagers, cell phones and PalmPilots. Ironically, many collectors are self-described computer geeks who started collecting dispensers through e-mail lists years ago.

Take Cliff Lee, a network engineer with a firm in Katy, Texas: “For me, it’s about a quest for the zany, the lighthearted. I like that in life,” he said. Lee also owns a “traveling collection” of some 1,400 dispensers glued to a 1977 Dodge Aspen — which he brings out for town parades and, of course, Pez gatherings. Until recently, he managed the Pezheads list, which boasts around 500 members. He insists he collects dispensers strictly as a hobby. “I don’t try to make money. I just can’t let them go,” he said.

Another die-hard Pezhead is “Jolly” Jim Presnal, who produced the Los Angeles convention. A software developer, Presnal said he started collecting Pez several years ago, thinking they were “a cute and kitschy toy.” Then he found community. “We’ve created a safe, G-rated community, a place for families,” he said, referring to the e-mail list as well as the actual Pez gatherings.

There are roughly 400 unique dispenser heads, with thousands of variations, according to Presnal. The name Pez comes from the first, middle and last letters of pfefferminz, the German word for peppermint. A closely (many say secretively) held Austrian company created the candy in 1927 as a breath mint for smokers: The spring-loaded dispensers, headless at first, were made to look like cigarette lighters. Toy character heads were added to the dispensers and fruit flavorings to the candies in 1952, after the candy was introduced in the United States.

As for wedding-bound Gochal and Thronson, they take their Pez so seriously that they’re working their collections into an informal prenuptial agreement. “She gets it all,” he wrote in a follow-up e-mail. “I agreed to that knowing one thing: that I will never give her a divorce … Pez will keep us together.”

More Related Stories

Featured Slide Shows

  • Share on Twitter
  • Share on Facebook
  • 1 of 11
  • Close
  • Fullscreen
  • Thumbnails
    Martyna Blaszczyk/National Geographic Traveler Photo Contest

    National Geographic Traveler Photo Contest Entries

    Slide 1

    Pond de l'Archeveche - hundreds thousands of padlocks locked to a bridge by random couples, as a symbol of their eternal love. After another iconic Pont des Arts bridge was cleared of the padlocks in 2010 (as a safety measure), people started to place their love symbols on this one. Today both of the bridges are full of love locks again.

    Anders Andersson/National Geographic Traveler Photo Contest

    National Geographic Traveler Photo Contest Entries

    Slide 2

    A bird's view of tulip fields near Voorhout in the Netherlands, photographed with a drone in April 2015.

    Aashit Desai/National Geographic Traveler Photo Contest

    National Geographic Traveler Photo Contest Entries

    Slide 3

    Angalamman Festival is celebrated every year in a small town called Kaveripattinam in Tamil Nadu. Devotees, numbering in tens of thousands, converge in this town the day after Maha Shivratri to worship the deity Angalamman, meaning 'The Guardian God'. During the festival some of the worshippers paint their faces that personifies Goddess Kali. Other indulge in the ritual of piercing iron rods throughout their cheeks.

    Allan Gichigi/National Geographic Traveler Photo Contest

    National Geographic Traveler Photo Contest Entries

    Slide 4

    Kit Mikai is a natural rock formation about 40m high found in Western Kenya. She goes up the rocks regularly to meditate. Kit Mikai, Kenya

    Chris Ludlow/National Geographic Traveler Photo Contest

    National Geographic Traveler Photo Contest Entries

    Slide 5

    On a weekend trip to buffalo from Toronto we made a pit stop at Niagara Falls on the Canadian side. I took this shot with my nexus 5 smartphone. I was randomly shooting the falls themselves from different viewpoints when I happened to get a pretty lucky and interesting shot of this lone seagull on patrol over the falls. I didn't even realize I had captured it in the shot until I went back through the photos a few days later

    Jassen T./National Geographic Traveler Photo Contest

    National Geographic Traveler Photo Contest Entries

    Slide 6

    Incredibly beautiful and extremely remote. Koehn Lake, Mojave Desert, California. Aerial Image.

    Howard Singleton/National Geographic Traveler Photo Contest

    National Geographic Traveler Photo Contest Entries

    Slide 7

    Lucky timing! The oxpecker was originally sitting on hippo's head. I could see the hippo was going into a huge yawn (threat display?) and the oxpecker had to vacate it's perch. When I snapped the pic, the oxpecker appeared on the verge of being inhaled and was perfectly positioned between the massive gaping jaws of the hippo. The oxpecker also appears to be screeching in terror and back-pedaling to avoid being a snack!

    Abrar Mohsin/National Geographic Traveler Photo Contest

    National Geographic Traveler Photo Contest Entries

    Slide 8

    The Yetis of Nepal - The Aghoris as they are called are marked by colorful body paint and clothes

    Madeline Crowley/National Geographic Traveler Photo Contest

    National Geographic Traveler Photo Contest Entries

    Slide 9

    Taken from a zodiac raft on a painfully cold, rainy day

    Ian Bird/National Geographic Traveler Photo Contest

    National Geographic Traveler Photo Contest Entries

    Slide 10

    This wave is situated right near the CBD of Sydney. Some describe it as the most dangerous wave in Australia, due to it breaking on barnacle covered rocks only a few feet deep and only ten metres from the cliff face. If you fall off you could find yourself in a life and death situation. This photo was taken 300 feet directly above the wave from a helicopter, just as the surfer is pulling into the lip of the barrel.

  • Recent Slide Shows



Comment Preview

Your name will appear as username ( settings | log out )

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href=""> <b> <em> <strong> <i> <blockquote>